Truly Madly Plaid – Eliza Knight

Icy rain had pelted the earth, threatening to freeze everything into a single slickened crystalized mass, and for now, it had waned at least enough that Lieutenant Craig MacLean felt safe moving out of his tent. While most of the men were celebrating their victory of the most recent battle, the rest of them were battling the ferocious weather, exhausted and simply looking for a place to get warm. Craig was of the latter group and trudged toward the house to check on the prince, who’d come down with the ague that had seized a number in his own company. The closer he drew to Bannockburn House, the more certain he was that he could hear someone retching. Dear God, how many more of them were to catch this illness? Then he saw her, bent almost all the way over, a hand holding her balance on the stone facade of the wall. Her brow was slick with rain or sweat or both, dark tendrils of hair plastered to her forehead and temples. At his approach she stood up straight, swaying. Her pallor was gray and ghostlike. He stood for a moment watching her, recognizing in an instant who she was. Sister to his friend Graham, Annie MacPherson, the prince’s own healer and a healer to many of the soldiers within camp. Yet it appeared she was the one in need of healing now. She leaned her back against the stones, stared almost through him, and then turned slowly, pressing her forehead to the cool outer wall. The lass was seriously ill. Craig edged closer. Och, he’d never seen so much vomit in his life, not even from a drunken soldier.

She’d vomited up the entirety of the last meal she’d eaten and perhaps what she’d consumed for the last sennight. Over and over again, so much so he’d begun to think it an unholy thing. “My lady,” he started, standing only a few feet away now, arm outstretched as though to aid her somehow. She might have been ill as the devil, but he had to help her. Annie wiped her mouth and then pulled a dagger from her boot, brandishing it toward him with wild eyes. “Get away from me, Sassenach, or I’ll cut off your ballocks and shove them down your throat if ye come another step closer.” Craig held up his hands in surrender, brows raised nearly to his hairline. Had the illness caused her to be addled? He was clearly no Sassenach. “I only want to help, my lady.” “I said leave me, ye savage Sassenach bastard.

Run back to your butchering friends.” And then she bent over again, convulsing, her body not done tormenting her. Craig glanced down, wondering what part of his attire—kilt, frockcoat, boots—made her think that he was a Sassenach. He’d yet to bathe after battle, not wanting to freeze to death, and it had been many days since he’d shaved his face, but if anything he just looked more like the rest of the bearded rebel Highlanders. When Annie was finished retching, she brandished the knife toward him again, swinging it so wildly he feared she’d end up hurting herself. And then she threw it at him. Though he dodged, the tip nicked his lip before falling at his feet. Craig growled at her, the taste of blood on his tongue. Finished with this nonsense, he moved to turn away when she started to sway uncontrollably, stretching for the stone wall, not finding it, and pitching forward. With her weapon at least discarded, he reached in then, an arm around her back, another beneath her legs, lifting her up into the air.

She collapsed against him, weak as a lamb just born and hotter than fire with fever. Annie struggled meekly. “Put me down. Do ye know who I am?” And then she fell into unconsciousness. “I know exactly who ye are,” he said to her unaware face. “And your brother would have my head if I left ye here. I’m taking ye inside, lass. Get ye some help.” He carried her to the front door and managed to open it with her in his arms. “Is there someone who can help?” he called.

But no one came. “Bloody hell.” Craig carried her up the stairs and found a spare bedroom, laying her down on the mattress when footsteps sounded behind. He turned around to find a wee maid brandishing another knife in his direction. “What the bloody devil with so many of ye trying to kill me when I’m only trying to help.” This one looked to have a worse skill with a knife than wee Annie, and she lunged at him, but Craig was able to block her, grabbing her wrist and applying just enough pressure that she dropped the weapon. But then she tried using her fists. “Oh, for bloody hell’s sake.” He held her tight in his arms, staring down into her face. “What have ye done to my mistress?” she demanded, wrestling against him.

“I was helping her, ye bloody fool. I ought to have ye whipped.” Her face paled. “Please, I didna realize…” Craig let her go, and she scrambled backward. “I’m no’ going to hurt ye any more than I was hurting her, ye pair of mad fools. I was only trying to help your mistress, who was outside getting ill against the side of the manor.” “Oh no, she’s caught the prince’s ague.” “Aye, and a bit of madness too.” Craig backed away, his thumb brushing at the fresh wound on his lip. “Take care of your mistress.

And dinna attack anyone else with the damned blade. Either of ye.” One April 5, 1746 This was a mistake. Every hair on the back of Lieutenant Craig MacLean’s neck stood on end, as though each one wielded its own sword against the enemy. Without the protection of the fortress walls, they were sitting ducks tromping through the forest. An army with most of its men on foot would not be able to escape should a legion of redcoats cut off their path. Winter had not stopped the sieges. Winter had not stopped death. A vulture flew overhead, accompanied by two cronies as they cut a wide circular path in the graying sky. Were he and the men the dead meat they sought? “We should go back,” he said to Graham MacPherson.

“Your invitation was appreciated, but I’ve no’ got a good feeling about this.” There was no telling when Cumberland’s men would make their move, and if the men were inebriated from drink and tired from too much celebrating, they’d not be ready for an attack. Graham chuckled and tossed the end of a stick he’d been chewing at Craig. “Ye’re afraid of a few birds, are ye?” “I’m no’ afraid of anything.” “Let loose, MacLean. The men need to have some fun, and so do ye.” The very last place that Craig wanted to be was riding toward Cullidunloch Castle. It wasn’t that he didn’t like castles or his host or the warm feast that Graham had promised or the ale that was certain to be flowing. Craig liked all of those things quite a lot. More than a lot, if he were being honest.

Toss in a bonnie wench or two to flirt with, and he’d be in his own version of heaven. But Cullidunloch Castle wasn’t only home to his best mate. It also happened to house a woman he’d been working hard to avoid for months. Graham’s sister Annie was very beautiful and very irksome. She was as brilliant as she was irritating, and despite that brilliance, the lass had conveniently forgotten the single encounter the two of them had shared. He hadn’t forgotten. How could he? And now he was descending upon her home—her and Graham’s home—to partake of their hospitality. Her hospitality. If she was willing to give it. Hospitality he would really like to have, considering he hadn’t had a warm bath in weeks.

He’d only managed to keep himself from smelling like a chamber pot by swimming—when the lochs weren’t covered in a sheet of ice. His clothes were getting stiff from use, and he was fairly certain that his last good pair of hose now had a hole where his big toe was greedily trying to squeeze through. At least right now they weren’t dealing with snow, though it was only early spring and another storm was inevitable in the Highlands. The temperatures had been rising steadily, enough so that the men in his regiment weren’t so fearful of freezing to death anymore. Unless of course it snowed tonight and Annie MacPherson tossed him out with the last of the evening’s rubbish. He wouldn’t put it past her. Craig would have to make nice with her, though he found the very idea absurd. Graham didn’t need to know what a termagant his sister truly was. He’d never told his friend what had happened when he’d found Annie retching after battle. To everyone else she encountered, Annie was sweet as sunshine.

Even the men she had to stitch up while they writhed in pain called her their angel—men in his own regiment, men he’d trained and led into battle. She was lauded for her nursing skills and her bedside manner, which stung even more. Of course he sent his men to her to be mended; she was the best damn healer he’d ever seen. And that was about all the amount of niceties he’d extend. Why had he been the only unlucky fellow to have encountered her waspish side? He would never be caught openly acknowledging the bonniness of her face. The way her chin curved into a petite point or the way her eyebrows arched delicately over her mesmerizing eyes. Eyes that were the most incredible amber color. Bloody hell. Every time he looked at Annie, every time she smiled, he saw that derisive sneer she’d flashed at him the night he’d tried to help her. He’d seen a side of her he was certain no one else had, and he’d run as far as he bloody could—after making sure she was safely taken care of, that was.

He wasn’t a complete monster. But he was quite all right with her believing he was, if that meant she’d stay the hell away from him. “Is the pottage breakfast no’ agreeing with ye?” Graham’s teasing voice cut through Craig’s thoughts. He snorted. “I’ve an iron stomach, lad.” “Lad? I think I’ve got a year or two on ye. And ye forget we’ve been living together on campaign for months. Bean pottage is no’ your friend, mate.” Craig snickered. “Are ye saying that ye’re in need of a latrine?” “Debatable.

” Craig was glad for his friend’s distraction. Though he didn’t want to talk about beans or what happened after he ate them. “Annie’s sure to have a hearty meal for the lot of us this evening.” Graham sounded so wistful, as though he were talking about something more fantastical than food. Like the war ending with Prince Charles Stuart sitting on the throne. Now that was something to long for. Craig’s smile faded, and he nodded, having hoped to avoid any further conversation about Graham’s chit of a sister. “I’m honored to be your guest.” This much was true. “Honored?” Graham let out a guffaw.

“Ye’re my brother in arms, mate.” While they’d known each other for years, they’d become closer friends after having saved each other’s arses at the battle at Falkirk the January past. “I’m certain Logan will want to spar with ye,” Graham was saying of his younger brother, who’d been sent home from the front with a grave injury. “And Annie, she’ll be there to sew ye up.” Craig laughed, but only half-heartedly. If he had his way, he’d keep Annie the length of a jousting stick away from him—preferably farther—at all times.

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